Sunday, October 21, 2012

Origins of the Cold War

With the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis I thought I would publish an essay that I wrote back in 2001.

In 1914 H. G. Wells’ novel The World Set Free was published.  While its literary quality at times takes a back seat to the message that Wells was trying to promulgate, it was in this work that he coined the name ‘atomic bomb’, depicted its discovery and nature, and described its use in a world war.  The story is told from the perspective of the 1970's and describes a world war that occurred in the 1950's.  In an interesting intersection of fiction and reality, Wells’ fictional scientist Holsten first achieves artificial atomic disintegration of bismuth in 1933, and it was in 1933 that  the Joliot-Curies first produced radioactive phosphorous by bombarding aluminum with electrons.  Upon hearing of their work, Leo Szilard immediately knew what it meant, because he had read Wells.  With the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a year before Wells’ own death, one war was ended, and a new one begun.

The Cold War may have officially begun with the dawning of the nuclear age, but its origins lie further in the past than those pivotal acts.  In his 1994 book, The Specter of Communism, Melvyn P. Leffler concentrates on the geopolitical events of the years 1917-1953 in his quest for those origins.  What began as an ideological clash following the Bolshevik revolution, turned into a more aggressive anti-Communism in the 1940s with Stalin’s selling of raw material to the Nazi’s and the 1941 Soviet nonaggression pact with Japan.  Stalin’s direction to Communist parties abroad to end their alliances with antifascist parties, and the resulting actions of the American Communist Party further spurred anti-Communist feelings in the U.S.

Fear of Communism did not, however, translate into a fear of the Soviet Union, especially when compared to the Nazi threat.  In a realization of the axiom that politics sometimes makes for strange bedfellows, the Allies found themselves in a wartime alliance with the Soviet Union against Germany.  But the alliance was never an easy one.  Each side had its own agenda and reasons for engaging in it, and after the war it was not long before it began to unravel under the forces of mutual distrust and misapprehensions.  As the fragile alliance crumbled the specter of Communism raised its head once more and the ideological clash was transformed into a power struggle that would continue for over forty years and leave very few aspects of our world untouched.

While the brevity of the work precludes an in-depth analysis of the complexities of the origins of the Cold War, Leffler does point out the role that misapprehensions played in the early years of its waging when the stakes were being identified and the battle lines were being drawn.  As the title implies the image that the United States had of Communism was a combination of fantasy and reality, an apparition of frightening demeanor.  The Communist versus capitalist, autocracy versus democracy, bipolar scenario did form a convenient framework for articulating the conflict, but the world is seldom, if ever, that black and white.  If, at times, his portrayal of the Soviet Union seems a trifle naive or simplistic, perhaps that merely reflects the naivete with which it was perceived in popular American culture.  As the blurbs on the back indicate, his book is a good introduction to the subject, but it is not the whole story.

In fact, as John Lewis Gaddis points out in his book We Now Know, the whole story has not yet been told, and could not be told before that war was over and the archives of the players opened and their secrets revealed.  This 1997 book is one of several to appear in recent years that examines the Cold War from a perspective that includes not only the knowledge of how it ended, but also how some of the other players perceived its waging.  Any one of his central chapters could easily be turned into a book in its own right, and some of them already have been.  As with Leffler, Gaddis is covering the early years of the Cold War, but his coverage extends for another ten years, stopping at the Cuban Missile Crisis, rather than the death of Stalin.  The greater length of his book allows for a more detailed treatment of the origins of the Cold War, and the extended scope results in a greater coverage of the use of the threat of nuclear weapons in its waging and also the impact of the conflict on the Third World, where a new Great Game was being played out.

This is a work of synthesis, and an attempt on his part to relate what we now know about the Cold War to what we thought we knew, and as such it is interesting to read it in conjunction with Gaddis’ earlier work The United States and the Origins of the Cold War 1941-1947, published in 1972.  With access to foreign sources opening up and the continuing declassification of documents, individuals that perhaps seemed a bit flat in Leffler’s book gain depth and complexity in Gaddis’.  And with this added understanding of the players, the events of the Cold War become more understandable, if no less tragic.

Lack of access to these sources, however, does not mean that you could not write a penetrating historical analysis of the Cold War, even before that war was over, as Barton J. Bernstein’s American Foreign Policy and the Origins of the Cold War amply demonstrate.  Written in 1970 this work was considered to be somewhat radical in its interpretation, but in light of the sources available in a post-Cold War, post-Soviet world, it now comes across as being rather perceptive.  Perceptive, too, was Wallace’s assessment of how the post war actions of America might be seen by other nations (in the letter to Truman, quoted on pp. 381-82), and one can’t help wondering what would have happened had Truman been more receptive to Wallace’s analysis.  Unfortunately, Wallace was fired for publicly criticizing Truman’s foreign policy.  With the firing of Wallace, the way was opened for George Kennan, a respected foreign service officer who wound up providing the intellectual power behind the Policy Planning Staff and formulating the policy of containment that would dominate U.S.-Soviet relations.  The story of his influence on U.S.-Soviet relations is ably told in Wilson Miscamble’s 1988 book George Kennan and the Making of American Foreign Policy, 1947-1950.

Bernstein’s analysis of Truman’s foreign policy also provides a nice counterpoint to the analysis put forth in Leffler’s book A Preponderance of Power : National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War, which examines the grand strategy of the Truman years.  In this in-depth analysis he is seeking to answer what he considers to be the perennial questions of the Cold War regarding US-Soviet relations, the spread of the conflict to the Third World, the arms race that it spawned and especially the question of whether or not the U.S. policy was wise or foolish.  He began the research for this book in 1979, and the book itself was published in 1992, so perhaps the optimism of its conclusions is not too surprising, considering the events that were taking place in the world during that time.

In contrast to Leffler’s optimism is the much more critical look at American foreign relations given by William Appleman Williams in his 1959 book The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, in which he broke with the traditional view of America as isolationist and argued that although we may not have had an empire in the sense of the French or the British, our economic policy did reflect an imperialist motivation.  In an argument since echoed elsewhere the conflict between Communism and capitalism becomes a competition for economic markets and influence.

For over forty years the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union dominated world politics, and dictated the economic priorities in both nations, and as we look beyond its origins to its eventual outcome we must also come to terms with its enduring legacy.  Perhaps the most prominent symbol of that legacy is the nuclear arsenal that many analysts insist prevented the Cold War from heating up.  Regardless of what is finally determined about the veracity of that claim, living under the threat of nuclear annihilation in the form of mutual assured destruction for almost half a century has had a lasting impact upon our culture.  From the 1950s craze for bomb shelters (my brother John lives in a house that contains one) to the sudden upsurge in the sighting of UFOs (a phenomena that Carl Jung attributed to the uncertainty of living under the threat of nuclear annihilation) the images of nuclear fear have permeated our society.  It is no coincidence that Japan came out with the Godzilla movie, featuring a monster created from the effects of atomic bomb radiation, and who can forget Stanley Kubrick’s dark satire Dr. Strangelove.

As the images of the Cold War permeated our society the lines between fiction and reality continued to blur.  The war was fought in many ways and on many fronts.  It was fought with secrets, threats and images and, as in most conflicts, propaganda and control of information were important factors.  As the conflict stretched out over decades, evolving into a stalemate, the conception of its nature crystallized into a battle between good and evil, light and dark, although which side was which was surely a matter of perspective.

But as we penetrate that history, and gain the perspective that only the distance of time can provide us we may find that distinction failing, as it usually does in any conflict.  In its effort to contain the Soviet Union the United State interfered in the internal affairs of other countries, supported dictatorships, even conspired in the assassination of heads of state and opposition leaders.  The irony that many of these actions were carried out under the aegis of promoting democracy was not lost on the peoples of the countries in whose affairs the U.S. meddled, and in a post-Cold War world the dragon’s teeth that were sown during its waging are continuing to sprout, further complicating the enduring legacy of this U.S.-Soviet conflict.

Further Readings on the Cold War

John Lewis Gaddis, The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941-1947, Columbia University Press, 1972

A history of U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union during and immediately after World War II.  Attempts to examine the many forces - domestic politics, bureaucratic inertia, individual personalities of the major players, as well as the perceptions of the intentions of the Soviets - that influenced the key decisions being made.


Melvin Leffler, A Preponderance of Power : National Security, the Truman Administration, and the Cold War, Stanford University Press, 1991
An in-depth analysis of Truman’s “grand strategy” that attempts to answer the big questions of the Cold War regarding the formation of U.S. foreign policy, written even as that war was coming to an end.  One can’t help wondering if the euphoria of that sudden victory affected the tone of his conclusions.


Wilson Miscamble, C.S.C., George Kennan and the Making of American Foreign Policy, 1947-1950, Princeton University Press, 1988

A study of George Kennan’s influence on foreign policy as the head of the Policy Planning Staff, his formulation of the policy of containment, the implementation of the Marshall Plan and the formation of NATO.


William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, Norton, 1959
A revisionist history that presents the U.S. as a tough, sometimes ruthless, promoter of its own economic power and influence.  Points out that even if the U.S. did not have an empire in the sense that the British and French did, its economic policy was a form of imperialism.


John Lewis Gaddis, The United States and the End of the Cold War : Implications, Reconsiderations, Provocations, Oxford University Press, 1994

A look back that asks, now that the Cold War is over, what’s next?  Includes an interesting reassessment of John Foster Dulles and Ronald Reagan and new interpretations of how America waged the Cold War, including the role of morality, nuclear weapons and espionage.


John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment : A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security, Oxford University Press, 1982

In-depth assessment of American post-war foreign policy, focusing on George Kennan’s policy of containment.  But he goes beyond its formulation to claim that American leaders misunderstood Kennan’s intentions, resulting in policy actions that Kennan did not approve of.


John Lewis Gaddis, Jonathon Rosenberg, Ernest R. May & Philip H. Gordon, eds. , Cold War Statesmen Confront the Bomb : Nuclear Diplomacy since 1945, Oxford University Press, 1999

Attempts to answer one of the most debated questions of the Cold War: did nuclear weapons prevent World War III?  by examining the careers of 10 Cold War statesmen - Harry Truman, John Foster Dulles, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Josef Stalin, Nikita Kruschev, Mao Zedong, Winston Churchill, Charles De Gaulle, and Konrad Adenauer - and their perceptions of war in light of nuclear weapons.


David Holloway, Stalin and the Bomb : The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy 1939-1956, Yale University Press, 1994
A penetrating account of the development of the Soviet atomic bomb, and Soviet nuclear policy, covering the war years and the origins of the Cold War.  Holloway draws upon sources only recently available and this glimpse of America during this time through Soviet eyes, specifically Stalin’s eyes, is absolutely fascinating.  Equally fascinating is the insight he provides into the culture of the Soviet Union during this period.


Hugh Gusterson, Nuclear Rites : A Weapons Laboratory at the End of the Cold War, University of California Press, 1996

An anthropologist’s look at the culture of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.  The place that, along with Los Alamos National Laboratory, made the nuclear warheads that may or may not have preserved the peace.  Remember the military-industrial complex?  This is an important part of it, and an important legacy of the Cold War.


Spencer R. Weart, Nuclear Fear : A History of Images, Harvard University Press, 1988

As the title implies Weart is examining the psychological aspects of the nuclear legacy of the Cold War.  While his analysis is a bit too Freudian for my tastes it makes for some fascinating reading, and will probably make you take a second look at some of those old monster movies.

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